Just as restaurant customers endured heat and humidity last summer, choosing to eat outside rather in air-conditioned comfort, diners this winter are willing to endure a chill so they can eat outdoors.
Restaurants in Winston-Salem are taking a variety of approaches to lure customers as they balance safety concerns with customers’ comfort and the need to increase revenue.
For some restaurants, it’s about regaining the seating they lost through Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 seating restrictions, still at 50% for indoor dining.
For others, it’s about accommodating people leery of eating in a closed environment where they may be more at risk for exposure to the coronavirus.
Since the pandemic began, about 17% of U.S. restaurants have closed for good, according to the National Restaurant Association. That’s about 110,000 businesses.
For the year 2020, the restaurant industry is estimating losses at $235 billion.
The CDC recommends as much fresh air as possible to reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus. That can mean an improved air filtration indoors, but the easiest, least-expensive solution is to remain outdoors, or at least have open windows and doors.
The recommendation carries more weight for such businesses as restaurants because people visiting them have to remove their masks to eat.
Some local restaurants had a head start on meeting diners’ needs during the pandemic. Quiet Pint Tavern on First Street put a permanent roof over much of its patio about four years ago. It also had previously installed plastic “walls” that could be rolled up or down depending on the weather. “My patio business is huge in the summer, but then we would lose it all in the winter,” said owner Dave Hillman.
He added a few more heaters this winter, for all practical purposes creating a second indoor dining room and doubling his seating capacity.
Similarly, Jeff Bassett has had part of his patio enclosed at Fourth Street Filling Station in the West End. Years ago, Bassett had created a covered and sealed portion of his patio to make up for the loss of outdoor seating in the cold months. This year, though, he chose to use loose flaps on the sides to allow increased air flow, compensating with some heaters. “And when I have a 55-degree day, the flaps go up,” he said.
The patio has been a blessing, he said, because “a lot of people won’t even walk through the door” of the restaurant.
Other restaurants are making temporary adjustments.
The Porch Kitchen and Cantina in West End Mill Works and The Katharine Brasserie & Bar downtown both have invested in clear plastic tents, sometimes referred to as “bubbles” or “igloos.”
The Porch has six tents, each of which can hold six to eight people — and so are limited to one party. The tents give privacy — and isolation — and wind and rain protection. Owner Claire Calvin said she doesn’t know if heaters would constitute a fire hazard in the bubbles but she has not heated them.
“If it’s sunny outside, they warm up," she said. "But once the sun goes down, they can get pretty cold.”
Calvin is supplementing the bubbles by renting the former Olio studio next door. She has put a handful of tables in there and keeps the garage door open for air flow.
Some of the white-tablecloth restaurants in town have tried to create outdoor areas that convey some of the elegance of their indoor dining rooms.
At Bernardin’s — just across the street from Fourth Street Filling Station — owner Freddy Lee has completely redone his patio. His renovation actually started before the pandemic, prompted by a 2018 winter storm that downed a tree on top of his old cabana.
But renovations took a while — partly because the former Zevely House is on the National Register of Historic Places — and weren’t completed until the fall of 2019. As luck would have it, Lee put in a permanent roof with a very high ceiling that allows plenty of air flow. He also put in attractive drapes around the sides. The drapes can be opened or closed, but even when closed will billow with the breeze, bringing in fresh air. Heaters are stationed throughout the area to keep diners warm.
“This has been the best thing we’ve ever done,” Lee said, noting that the small rooms of the historic house make socially distanced dining especially challenging.
Lee said that the patio renovation has been so successful that he’s going to take it a step further. “Next month, we’re going to add tall French doors all the way around, with glass at the top to let in light,” he said. “All the doors will open and close.”
Lee also has a heated but more open patio at one of his other restaurants, Cibo Trattoria on Trade Street. The patio actually was a neglected courtyard used for storage that was two doors down at the end of the building. Lee arranged with his landlord to take it over.
It has a full wall on one side and a low brick wall topped with wrought iron on three sides. Between the old brick, the wrought iron, plants and a central fountain, Lee created an attractive dining area that rivals his indoor dining room.
Like at Bernardin’s, he added heaters. “It’s like a little French garden, and it gives you a lot of air flow,” he said. “People love it.”
Similary, Joe and Molly Curran, the owners of 1703 Restaurant at Reynolda and Robinhood roads, have tried to recreate some of the warmth and elegance of their indoor dining room outdoors.
While the restaurant was closed this spring, they poured concrete to double the size of their patio floor. “We knew people weren’t going to want to eat inside,” Joe Curran said.
Then in October, they rented a large tent with open sides, similarly to what they would use for catering an event.
They added about one heater for every table. To help block the wind, Joe Curran found a bunch of old doors at the Rescue Mission, stained them and propped them up about 8 feet or so apart all around the tent. Planters and decorations — currently for Valentine’s Day — as well as white tablecloths, candlelight and cushioned chairs add to the atmosphere.
Fans help circulate the heated air.
“It actually gets really warm in here,” Molly Curran said. “Sometimes people ask us to turn the heat down.”
Joe Curran said they refer to it as the “outdoor dining room,” because it’s really more than a patio. He said that the space also has proved useful for small catering jobs, like a supper club, a family love feast during the holidays and even a small wedding.
Not every restaurant has done as much as 1703, but most restaurants that have patio or similar outdoor space are trying to make use it of this winter because they need every dollar they can get.
Village Tavern in Reynolda Village has had an outdoor heated tent for years; it added a second one during the pandemic. River Birch Lodge on Robinhood Road enclosed its back patio recently. Willow’s Bistro on Liberty Street has barely any patio — it’s more like a narrow walkway, but even so, they blocked off the wind along the railing and installed a series of large heaters so customers could sit out there.
Bars, too — which are restricted to outdoor service only — have been covering and heating their outdoor areas wherever possible. Ditto for breweries. Drive by Wise Man Brewing and you’ll see a series of five tents in addition to the usual outdoor picnic tables. Each tent has two tables and a heater for anyone who wants to sit outside and drink beer.
Some restaurateurs have invested thousands of dollars into their patios at a time when monthly revenue is down by tens of thousands.
Most say that the winter patios are not making up for losses, but they are helping.
“We’re really not making any money,” Joe Curran said. “But it’s worth it. This is keeping the wait staff employed.”
“No one wants to sit inside right now. I’m just trying to make people comfortable,” Bassett said of Fourth Street Filling Station. “My goal is just trying to survive.”
Calvin — who has kept her other restaurants, Canteen and Alma Mexicana, closed for most of the pandemic — echoed a similar sentiment. “We’ve lost money every month of the pandemic. Without PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money, we probably wouldn’t still be open,” she said.
“Right now, we’re just trying to hold on. This is about keeping my core staff, so that when it’s time to reopen, we can rebuild.”